President Bush's Naked Envoy

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Somebody, please tell Dick Cheney to put on some clothes. Like the naked emperor of the fairy tale, the Vice President is on a sweep through Europe asking for help in Iraq, at the same time as insisting that the Iraq invasion had maintained U.S. credibility: "There comes a time when deceit and defiance must be seen for what they are," Cheney told a polite but skeptical audience of power brokers at Davos. "At that point, a gathering danger must be directly confronted. At that point, we must show that beyond our resolutions is actual resolve."

Cheney's John Wayne posturing — "direct threats require decisive action" — suggests that he must think the Europeans hadn't noticed that the Bush administration has been forced to concede that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The "gathering danger" of which Cheney continues to speak was but a phantom menace. When the fall of Saddam's regime and the occupation of Iraq had failed to reveal the massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons of which the Bush team had warned — nor the nuclear weapons program that Cheney insisted had been reconstituted — the Bushies insisted that given time, they would provide the evidence to back up the extravagant prewar claims of the unconventional weapons threat from Iraq. Last week, however, they appeared to quietly give up the ghost. David Kay, the CIA weapons inspector put in charge of the hunt by the Bush administration quit and told National Public Radio that Iraq had no stockpiles of banned weapons when the war began last March.

Some in the administration, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, graciously acknowledged the egg on their faces. Powell told reporters aboard his plane that his indictment of Iraq at the UN Security Council a year ago was based on what U.S. intelligence believed to be true at the time — a prospect rendered rather frightening by rereading Powell's presentation, widely hailed at the time as making the most credible case for war, of which remarkably little bears up. A comprehensive analysis of the fate of various prewar claims by the British American Security Information Council (http://www.basicint.org/pubs/Research/2004WMD3.htm#01) suggests that Bush and Blair may have done better to listen more carefully to chief UN weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix. The UN never actually claimed that Iraq still had stockpiles of banned weapons; merely that it had not provided the evidence to vouch for its claim to have destroyed all of those weapons. Treated like an ineffectual appeaser by most of the U.S. media before the war, Blix suddenly looks like the only one who had it right and quite a few publications, and politicians, owe him an apology.

Kay's comments, of course, are a refreshing departure for a man, who as Slate's Fred Kaplan notes, had mastered the art of building castles out of thin air, artfully choosing his words to allow administration sound-bite authors to imply that WMD evidence was imminent. Kay did, of course, do his former employers the service of trying to pin the blame for going to war under false pretenses onto the CIA. That seems to be the White House fallback position, too, although Press Secretary Scott McClellan gamely suggests that Kay's conclusion may be "premature" — in other words, don't expect us to confirm the obvious until after November.

To be sure, there's no doubt that the intelligence community got it badly wrong on Iraq. But there's also plenty of evidence, well documented in a study by the Carnegie Endowment, to suggest that the intelligence community was placed under considerable pressure to provide the answers on Iraq that the administration's hawks wanted to hear.

Some advocates of going to war to stop a WMD threat on U.S. soil have admitted their error: Former National Security Council official Ken Pollack, for instance, whose book "The Gathering Storm" made the case for many a liberal hawk that invasion was the only way to stop Saddam becoming a nuclear threat, provides an excruciatingly detailed explanation of how and why U.S. intelligence erred, but more importantly, concludes with a warning that Vice President Cheney might heed: "Fairly or not, no foreigner trusts U.S. intelligence to get it right anymore, or trusts the Bush Administration to tell the truth. The only way that we can regain the world's trust is to demonstrate that we understand our mistakes and have changed our ways."

Faced with an increasingly complex and messy situation in Iraq, the U.S. needs a lot more international help extricating itself than it needed going in — indeed, Washington's ability to prevent its standoff with the Shiite majority over elections from erupting into confrontation now depends on a UN team agreeing that elections by June are not practical. Mr. Cheney's mission in Europe appears to have been to mend fences in order to win European backing in Iraq and elsewhere. The problem, however, is that not only was U.S. diplomatic influence was severely damaged on the march to war, but that the failure of the invasion to produce the evidence to back Washington's claims has further dented its credibility. That's unlikely to be repaired as long as Cheney is acting as if David Kay had proved the earth was flat.